Posted May 27 2012 10:51AM
BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics survived.
There's really no other way to put it. With an 85-75 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Saturday, the Celtics finally knocked out the Philadelphia 76ers and advanced to face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
This was an ugly, brutal series, and Game 7 followed the script. The teams combined to shoot just 39 percent and the game was on the line with four minutes to go. Ultimately, two players made the difference for the Celtics.
Kevin Garnett was the Celtics' anchor defensively. No, the Sixers aren't a great offensive team, but with the way their guards chewed up the Boston defense in the second half of Game 6, the Celtics' top priority on Saturday was to shut down the paint.
Active and vocal for more than 38 minutes, Garnett did just that. After scoring a total of 28 points in the paint in Game 6, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams combined for just 10 in Game 7. With Garnett cutting off their path to the basket, they were forced to shoot from the outside, where they were just 5-for-22.
The Sixers scored just 57 total points in their 73 possessions with Garnett on the floor on Saturday, typical of the way he affected their offense throughout the series. Over the seven games, Philly scored just 86 points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the floor and 124 with him on the bench.
Garnett wasn't at his best offensively on Saturday, scoring 18 points on 17 shots, 12 of which came from outside the paint. But he was good enough, and he hit two critical jumpers to keep the Sixers at bay early in the fourth quarter.
Late in the fourth, with Paul Pierce having fouled out, Rajon Rondo took over. After 44 minutes of tentative play, Rondo had no choice but to get aggressive, both off the dribble and from the perimeter, with the game on the line.
It was a three-point game when Pierce fouled out with 4:16 to go. And then Rondo proceeded to score 11 of the Celtics' next 12 points, essentially saving the season with his jump shot.
"We were kind of down to Rondo and Kevin in pick and roll down the stretch," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said afterward. "The 3-point shot, obviously, was big, but more his attack and his command."
Prior to this game, some talking heads were trumpeting a notion that a team needs a player to score 30 or 40 points to win a Game 7. Well, Garnett and Rondo, who recorded his ninth career postseason triple-double, led the Celtics with 18 points apiece.
This is not breaking news. The Celtics win ugly. They're a great defensive team that will go through multiple offensive droughts every night. Points do not come easy and, given their lack of healthy bodies and perimeter shooting, they have no choice but to grind out their victories.
"I don't think we can win games by 20 or 25," Rivers said. "With this group right now, with what we have going on, it's hard to do. But our mindset is that we have to grind games. That's how we go into games, with that thought, and I think that's how we have to think."
And that's how they'll approach the conference finals. They have to make it another ugly series and force the Heat to grind it out with them. They have to get back in transition and keep LeBron James and Dwyane Wade out of the paint. On the other end of the floor, the Celtics have to exploit their two matchup advantages.
Without Chris Bosh, the Heat have nobody on their frontline who can match up with Garnett, who should get plenty of touches in the post. Rondo, meanwhile will force Miami to make critical matchup decisions defensively.
Rondo dislocated his left elbow in Game 3 of last year's conference semifinals, and there are those who wonder whether the Celtics could have won the series if their point guard was healthy. Rondo isn't worried about that right now, but he certainly believes the Celtics have what it takes to get back to The Finals for the third time in five years.
"Last year is in the past," he said. "This year, we're a totally different team. We feel we can beat Miami. Obviously we got to this point. There's no doubt in my mind that we can, so we've got to go down there and take care of business."
The Celtics are both shorthanded and banged up. The Sixers took them to the limit in this series, and they've got a quick turnaround for Game 1 on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
In their minds, though, all that doesn't matter. Bottom line: They're still alive. And now, they're the Heat's problem, as much as the Sixers were theirs.
"I love where we're at," Rivers said. "I told them after the game, 'This is exactly where we thought we would be, and we're going to Miami.'"
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